Shvitz and other things Yiddish make a comeback

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NEW YORK — Aren't sure that Yiddish is alive and kicking?

"Shvitz! My Yiddishe Workout," which will have you flexing to the real oldies, wants to convince you that it is.

More Fyvush Finkel than "Buns of Steel," "Shvitz!" may claim a unique place in the annals of exercise videos by dint of the fact that its host, Shifra Lerer, silver-haired actress and star of Yiddish theater, wags a finger every few minutes and urges viewers to "sit down and rest, if you're not feeling too good."

The workouts, demonstrated to a klezmer beat and narrated in Yiddish by Lerer and two hard-body co-stars, are subtitled in English for those unversed in the mamaloshen.

Does the recent appearance of "Shvitz!" indicate the revival of a Yiddish-speaking market? Does it mean that Yiddish culture has been transformed from the historical to the contemporary?

Lovers of Yiddish are at odds over whether the phenomenon of something like "Shvitz!" is a harbinger of revitalization, or simply an exercise in kitschy nostalgia.

Some, primarily academics, say Yiddish is an important, but essentially dead, language.

The only place that the language will be carried from one generation to the next, they say, is in Chassidic shtetls such as the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Boro Park and Williamsburg.

"The best proof that Yiddish is dead is the revival of Yiddish,'` says David Roskies, a professor of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Yiddish is popular, he says, because it provides an easy but short-lived way for people to connect with a piece of their Jewishness.

"You don't have to belong to any organization, don't have to have any ideology," he says. "You can lay any trip you want to on Yiddish and feel you're doing something authentic and meaningful."

Those who disagree say that Yiddish is by its very nature a language and culture adaptive to the larger environment in which it exists, and that a younger generation is reclaiming it today so that it will once again find a life of its own.

Still others believe that the future of Yiddish in America is unclear.

"It's very hard to know where all of this will go, and that's what makes it interesting," says Tom Freudenheim, executive director of the New York-based YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

"But it is totally unlike what anyone predicted," Freudenheim said, referring to the fact that since the 1940s, people have forecast the demise of Yiddish language and culture, yet that has not happened.

Whatever its future, the current grassroots bloom of interest in things Yiddish — from klezmer music to the language and literature itself — is undeniable.

Yiddish seems to be providing a Jewish connection for people who have felt on the margins of legitimacy because they find no resonance in Judaism as a religion and are committed to Jewish secularism.

"It's about alienation from the Jewish religious establishment," says Alisa Solomon, a staff writer for the Village Voice who is taking a six-week Yiddish course at Columbia University. "There's a kind of analogy people make with the marginalized status of Yiddish itself. It's an outsider stance."

Manifestations of the renewed interest in Yiddish are everywhere:

*Klezmer music, rediscovered as musical folklore in the mid-1970s, is perhaps the most popular contact point. For many listeners the music is the beginning and end of interest in Yiddish, though klezmer musicians sell out in some of the country's finest venues. Bands range from the Klezmatics, likely the most popular of the bunch — which uses Yiddish tradition and simultaneously subverts it to convey radical messages on contemporary issues such as gay rights — to musicians John Zorn and Andy Statman, who blend klezmer with jazz.

*Academic Yiddish programs at universities around the world — from Austin, Texas, to Oxford, England — are booming.

*Several annual festivals, like Klezcamp, Mame-Loshn and YiddishVoch, have been established within the last decade in the United States. Each attracts hundreds of people to usually weeklong sessions where they socialize, improve their Yiddish language skills, study literature and film, and learn shiatsu massage or play basketball in the mother tongue.

Internationally, there's "the Yiddish Woodstock," formally known as the Second International Yiddish Festival, in Amsterdam, and Ashkenaz `97, a lakeside festival attended by more than 30,000 when first held two years ago in Toronto.

What is this renewed interest and energy really about?

Reuvn Millman, who conceived and produced "Shvitz!" believes that through the creation of vibrant communities of people with this shared secular interest, Yiddish culture is being rebuilt.

Millman is a producer of Mame-Loshn, a festival held over Memorial Day weekend that this year attracted more than 700 people to Fairfield, Conn. "Some Yiddishists are interested in Yiddish as a dying language," he said. "We believe Yiddish is a useful language, a language of community.'`

Millman stumbled into it five years ago when he heard the language spoken at a Lubavitch wedding. His wife suggested he delve into the tongue of his grandparents.

"As soon as I started learning, I started meeting people who were of varied backgrounds, who were very spirited, though not necessarily spiritual," says Millman, who changed his first name from Roland during his first Yiddish class. He wants to raise his children speaking Yiddish as well as they do English.

So do Debra Cohen-Mlotek and her husband, Zalman Mlotek.

Mlotek conducts Yiddish-language choruses and his wife teaches kindergarten in a Jewish day school near their home in Teaneck, N.J. Mlotek, raised in a secular Yiddish-speaking home, speaks only in Yiddish to their two sons, ages 9 and 6, though Cohen-Mlotek speaks to them in English. On Sundays, the children join a Yiddish play group of about a dozen youngsters.

Cohen-Mlotek says they want their children to know Yiddish because "it rounds them out as Jews. It's the same as how I want them to know Talmud."

But Aaron Lansky thinks this attempt at re-creation won't work.

"Language doesn't develop outside of context," says Lansky, president of the new $8 million National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. "If it becomes just a secret language for the home it won't work."

More important, he says, is for this generation of Yiddish-lovers to preserve the artifacts that remain from the halcyon days of Yiddish culture and to understand its role in the evolution of Jewish life.

"If you want to know who you are, you have to know where you've come from," Lansky says. "Since, in the last 1,000 years, 80 percent of the world's Jews spoke Yiddish, we clearly need to come to terms with the culture if we are to have any sense of continuity in contemporary Jewish life."